Using the Tarot to break writers block
By Melinda Rose Goodin
What you need
Preparing to use the cards
The 1 card draw
The Celtic Cross
A card per chapter
No one knows the origin of the Tarot. We do know Italian nobles used specially commissioned decks in card games in the 15th century. We also know that their more occult tradition began in the 18th century, when scholars of the occult began to interpret the images of each card as more than just a card game. Since then the Tarot has been embraced and connected to other forms of the occult such as Egyptian mysteries, the Kabbalah and alchemy.
The use of Tarot cards is a process that has drawn much mystery, mythology and confusion to it in the past. Professional card readers might claim it helps to tap into a querent's destiny, make contact with guardian spirits or help your subconscious speak out in a way that your conscious mind can evaluate. The potential occult connections can both frighten and intrigue people who have not had an opportunity to learn about them.
For the purposes of this article, I will refer to the cards as tools for your subconscious mind, and fun tools at that. Perhaps it is that bit of fun and playing with unusual images and ideas that will help break your blocks. There's nothing arcane about this process, because it will be your hand that shuffles cards or guides a pin across a card listing. It will be your mind that determines when you should stop shuffling or pierce the list with your pin. And it will be your mind that determines how you interpret the message of the cards.
Traditionally Tarot cards are used as a means of divination. Expert readers will know how to lay out the cards in a pattern called a “spread” and they will know the meaning of each card and the symbolism contained within. For our purposes, you don't need an expert to lay the cards out and interpret them. Most decks of cards come with an explanatory booklet that can give you some guidance, and many public libraries will have books on the topic of Tarot.
Remember that the cards are simply a tool for you to spark creativity. They cannot dictate a path for you, so if the suggestion doesn't gel with your ideas for the story, you are welcome to ignore it. However, I suggest you allow yourself to free associate with the images and meanings of the cards. You may find a hint of a story, a facet of a character, a potential theme that might have escaped your notice before.
What you need to try this technique:
- A pen
- A flat surface
- Either a deck of cards or a listing of the cards and a pin
- The booklet that usually comes with a deck of cards, or a basic book on the Tarot that lists each card
- A question about your manuscript
- Some peace and quiet
Preparing to use the cardsIf you have access to a set of cards, find yourself a clear surface and a little time when you won't be disturbed. Also make sure you have a pen and paper handy for any ideas about your story that may come into your head.
If you don't have a tarot deck, you can still use the principles of this system. Many public libraries will have basic books on the tarot. To select your card or cards, do a random flick through the book and see which image comes up or write out a list of the cards and use the random dropping of a pin to select each card. If you have access to the Internet, the two sites recommended below will provide detailed card explanations and diagrams of card spreads. One will even do the reading for you.
I suggest three different ways to use the tarot cards:
- Draw one card to prompt you about the blockage or suggest story ideas
- Do a standard reading to answer a question about your block or your manuscript
- Draw a card per chapter to give you an idea of what's ahead.
Method 1: the one card drawThis is the simplest method of all.
1. Think about the problem within your book or character.
2. Shuffle the cards as you think about the issue.
3. When instinct tells you to, stop shuffling.
4. Pull the top card from the deck and turn it over.
5. Study the card and its meaning to see how it relates to your problem.
I often spend a little time studying the details of the card and jotting them down on my notepad. Sometimes the card's meaning is clear to me from the beginning, and sometimes I need to look at the small details to relate them to my story problem. Feel welcome to read the description of the card's meaning and think of how it might explain or answer your story question.
For example, a rereading of my futuristic work in progress showed that I had a sagging middle in the manuscript. The pace of the novel had slowed down drastically because the characters were simply talking about their pasts. It was important that I find a way to develop these characters and their history. I drew a tarot card to help work out a way of maintaining pace and story development.
I drew the Tower.
Typically the image of this card shows a tower being struck by lightning. Flames break out and people tumble from the tower onto jagged rocks below. It is a card of action and great change. Essentially it invited me to blast my characters out of their peace and force them to act upon the cause of the change.
The Tower has several key phrases that suggested alterations to the scene: SUDDEN CHANGE, RELEASE, DOWNFALL or REVELATION. They prompted me to realise that everything was going too nicely for my main characters. They had significant internal and external conflicts that should be moving the pace of the novel and their relationships along, but I'd let them drop into a nice little chat session. My heroine was a woman who avoided confrontation and was deeply secretive, so the chat session was most unlike her. If information was to be revealed, I needed to confront her with the type of conflicts she feared, and then I could reveal some of her secrets to the hero via her actions. This dramatic return to crisis forced my heroine to make big changes that she might have ordinarily rejected. The middle of the novel no longer sagged, as its long chat-fest was converted to plot and character development through action.
Method 2: the Celtic Cross readingThe Celtic Cross is a well-known system of dealing the cards that should be described in any introductory book about the Tarot. If the card deck you have comes from U.S. Games Systems, Inc., there will be a description and diagram at the back of the booklet that comes with the cards. I often use this spread as a way of finding the cause of a writing block when a character either isn't taking life or won't do what they're told. I try to put myself in the point of view of the character and then I shuffle the deck. When instinct tells me to stop, or my hands start to hurt, I stop shuffling.
The top ten cards on your shuffled deck will be used.
The first two cards indicate the focus of the problem within your story or your character. A card above then amplifies them, indicating your conscious awareness of the issues, and a card below to let you know of problems you have not yet perceived. A card to the left tells the past of that problem and a card to the right tells of the future developments.
The four cards that remain indicate external influences upon the problem. Card seven reveals what you think of the situation, card eight reveals what others perceive. Card nine tells you what you need to know or have failed to account for in your plans. Card ten explains the final outcome.
In order to properly deal with the sagging middle of my futuristic, I decided to do a Celtic Cross. I would focus on my heroine Sharra to learn more about her. The Tower card suggested what I must do to fix the sagging middle of my plot, but the Cross could give me more insight into the character causing the problem.
The family history I had set up for Sharra and her brother would act background for the reading. They were the result of an unwanted pregnancy and the children's psychic abilities caused their parents much distress. Sharra and David's upbringing was left to family servants and they rarely saw their parents. Sharra's brother went missing when she was a teenager, and she has devoted the last ten years to trying to find him. At the middle of the book, Sharra is being hunted by one band of mercenaries acting for her ex-husband, and has just been rescued by another mercenary with plans of his own.
And so I began my reading for Sharra. The question I asked was: What is preventing Sharra from meeting her goal?
Card 1 was the Page of Pentacles. As the focus card for her problems, the Page tells Sharra she needs to concentrate on the practical aspects of her problem. She is currently operating under a false charge of murder. She must sort that out before she can continue on her search for her brother.
Card 2 was the Knight of Cups. The Knight shows that part of Sharra's problem is her insistence of doing things alone. She can accomplish more if she gets help, and that help might provide a more logical approach to the situation.
Card 3 - the 3 of Swords represents the basis of her problem, the heartbreak Sharra has felt of being unwanted by her parents and then separated from her twin. Three swords pierce the heart in the card, symbols of the callous treatment by her parents and her loss of her brother.
Card 4 - The Queen of Cups has a special meaning for Sharra's future. Sharra has always tried to be mother to her brother but now it is time to let him go. Her ideal is that she can find and rescue him and they can return to the relationship they had before. But that relationship was one shared by innocent teenagers, and her dream is unrealistic. She needs to let go of this hope before she can move on.
Card 5 - the 6 of Wands shows the strength of Sharra's intentions and belief that she can find her brother, despite the lack of clues to his whereabouts. If she sets her mind to it, she will succeed eventually, but she must plan and then she must act to carry out that plan.
Card 6 – the 8 of Swords suggests that problems lie ahead. Not only must she battle her own fears and doubts, but outside forces may be working against her.
Card 7 - The King of Swords implies that Sharra sees herself as being just and true with her quest. She believes that her brother was stolen, not that he has run away. She will apply all her intellect and detective skills to find him.
Card 8 - The Knight of Pentacles implies that the outside world sees her very differently. They think she is obsessed and decidedly strange. Because of this view, she has managed to alienate people who could have helped in her search, and so has reduced her chances of success. She needs to be more moderate and flexible if she wants to get help.
Card 9 – The 5 of Cups represents Sharra's fears. It carries a warning that Sharra will probably lose her dream of her brother and their relationship. However, if she can deal with that, she may be able to forge a new relationship with the man he has become.
Card 10 - The Magician is a very positive final card. The Magician represents control of psychic abilities and so she will find her brother who has become a man of great abilities and great control. He is a Major Arcana card, signifying great energy and power. If Sharra can learn to control her own abilities, she will succeed in her quest and have a happy, successful life.
Method 3: the card per chapter
This is an expanded version of Method 1. It can be used to play around with a nebulous idea for a new project, or as a prompter for developments within a lagging project. This can be great fun as part of a brainstorming group with some trusted writing friends. I tried this out at a writers retreat. It was late at night, we'd all had a good meal, there was plenty of chocolate and a storm blew up in time to give us some atmosphere. I listed the basic idea for a potential project and then the card drawing began. The images and meanings prompted a spirited brainstorming session and a detailed plan for my next project.
I'd be pleased to correspond regarding these issues. I can be contacted by email
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